On October 30, the Arabic Language and Culture Student Association (ALCSA) organized a panel discussion on “Obsession” at North Dakota State University in Fargo, ND. The following thoughts are an expanded version of what I tried to argue during that discussion.
The logic of the film “Obsession” rests on a single assumption. The assumption is that an entity called “Radical Islam” has launched a war against another entity, called “the West,” and that the two entities are absolutely different and distinct from each other. An unbridgeable abyss separates the two. Since they are mutually exclusive, there is no possibility of dialogue, discussion, compromise, negotiation, or co-existence. The war between them is the war of survival. Only one of these two entities would emerge victorious from the conflict. It’s either us or them.
But is the dichotomous assumption true? Is it really the case that “Radical Islam” and “the West” have nothing in common? The more we examine this assumption, the more clearly we are able to see that it does not stand up to critical scrutiny.
Let’s examine how “Obsession” attempts to make us accept this assumption by making certain key claims.
First, the film claims that “they” are obsessed with world domination, implying that we are not.
Really? The United States has a long history of territorial and economic expansionism. Today, the US military budget is almost as big as the combined military spending of the rest of the world. In 2002, the Department of Defense issued a document on its future strategy, titled “Joint Vision 2020,” which emphasizes the need to achieve “full-spectrum dominance.” We have more than seven hundred military bases all over the world, and we employ half a million soldiers, spies, technicians, and civilian contractors in foreign countries. We have no scruples against vetoing international consensus, or in violating international laws and treaties just because we can get away with those crimes. There is definitely truth in the claim that “Radical Islam” is obsessed with world domination, but it is even more obvious that so are we. In fact, we have been obsessed with world domination for a much longer period of time, and we have already achieved a great deal of our dream of world domination. “They” are like little children trying clumsily to imitate their big and impressive parent.
Second, the film claims that “they” are religious fanatics, implying that we are not.
Islam, or even “Radical Islam” has no monopoly over religious fanaticism. In fact, “fundamentalism” was invented by American Protestants in the post-Civil War era, culminating in the infamous “monkey trial” against the teaching of Darwinian evolution in schools. Christian fundamentalism today is arguably a stronger force than Islamic fundamentalism, primarily because of its powerful financial and organizational infrastructure, its world-wide reach, and its ability to influence American politics. Here is a version of religious fanaticism that insists on the literal inerrancy of the Bible, fights against the right to abortion while defending the death penalty, militantly supports Israel’s oppressive policies as part of the divine plan for Christ’s “second coming,” opposes any cooperation with the United Nations, and expects widespread disasters and bloodshed as signs of the impending “raputre.”
Third, the film claims that “they” are liars and therefore untrustworthy, implying that we are not.
It is difficult to think of a claim easier to refute than this. Lies are clearly an integral part of the Western civilization. We lie not only to others but very frequently to ourselves, often convincing us of the falsehood that we ourselves had invented. “Obsession” suggests that Muslims who say they are not extremists may be lying; Muslims who look “moderate” may in fact be fanatics and radicals. The implication is that they cannot be trusted. This claim blurs the boundary, if there ever was one, between “Islam” and “Radical Islam,” or between “good Muslims” and “bad Muslims.” In effect, all Muslims are bad unless they prove themselves to be good; they are guilty before, or without, any trial. But to suggest that “they” are liars by default and “we” are truthful by default is itself a massive case of self-deception.
Fourth, the film claims that “they” are violent, implying that we are not.
The only morally legitimate way to condemn “Radical Islam” for its violent actions or tendencies is to assume that the accusers themselves are peaceful and peace-loving people who abhor violence. Throw the first stone if you have never committed a sin. The accuser in this case is supposedly “the West,” the same entity that invented total war, weapons of mass destruction, trench warfare, concentration camps, and nuclear bombs. Jesus’ audience were shamed into retreat when they heard his challenge, but those who today accuse “Radical Islam” of its violent tendencies seem to lack even a minimum level of self-awareness. They strain out gnats while swallowing entire camels.
Fifth, the film claims that “they” are terrorists, implying that we are not.
That’s an amazing, mind-boggling claim. Terrorism is the deliberate creation of very high levels of fear in a target population, usually through the demonstration of actual force, in order to bend their will. What is “shock and awe” if not the deliberate creation of terror? What purpose did the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki serve vis-a-vis the rest of the world, other than raising their fear of US power? What does “collateral damage” mean, if not the murder of innocent civilians? What is a “pre-emptive strike” if not a total travesty of the notion of self-defense? If terrorism is the deliberate creation of fear, then we ought to remember that the modern nation-state has an extremely large capacity to create this kind of fear as compared with any sub-national group, no matter how resourceful. In effect, the logic of terrorism is hardly different from the logic of modern warfare. As Peter Ustinov said, “war is the terrorism of the rich, and terrorism is the war of the poor.” Those who wish to denounce terrorism must also denounce modern warfare in the same breath, or they would be guilty of hypocrisy.
Sixth, the film claims that “they” are anti-Semitic, implying that we are not.
The first point to highlight is that anti-Semitism was a Christian invention. Jews have been a theological problem for Christianity, but they never became one for Islam. Modern Jewish scholarship has acknowledged that Muslim societies before the twentieth-century showed no signs of anti-Semitism. Contemporary anti-Semitic tendencies among Muslims are directly related to the Israel-Palestine issue; the roots are political, not theological. In fact, the Jewish stereotypes now found among some Arabic broadcasting are hardly original; they have been imported from Christian and European sources. More importantly, the film “Obsession” demonstrates a remarkable lack of self-awareness in this context. While denouncing “Radical Islam” for its anti-Semitism, not only does the film fails to mention its political roots in Palestinian dispossession and suffering but also remains blissfully unconscious of its own Islamophobia. The film’s stereotypes of Muslims as dangerous, violent, obsessed with world domination, and untrustworthy liars are reminiscent of the earlier stereotypes of Jews among European Christians. Don’t we ever learn from history?
Seventh, the film claims that “they” are genocidal maniacs, implying that we are not.
One of the strangest moments in “Obsession” is when the film compares “Radical Islam” with Nazism, suggesting that 55 Muslim countries could potentially be the equivalent of so many Nazi Germanies. This comparison reflects the low opinion that the directors of “Obsession” have of the film’s audience. How stupid do they think we are? If “Radical Islam” is in fact similar to Nazism, this fact more than any other demolishes the dichotomous assumption behind the film. Nazism was a Western phenomenon; if “Radical Islam” is like Nazism, this makes the ideology of “Radical Islam” an integral part of “the West.” As Zygmunt Bauman has shown, the Holocaust was the logical result of modern rationalization, and, as such, it has to be understood as a quintessentially “Western” phenomenon. The inability of “the West” to face this very disturbing fact, to recognize its own shadow side, allows it to project all evil tendencies on to whatever happens to fit the role of its “other.” From this perspective, “Radical Islam” is simply the mirror in which “the West” can see its own image, or, failing that, it will continue to see an evil monster.
The film “Obsession” is built on a very tenuous and unstable foundation. It’s basic premise, the dichotomous assumption of a complete discontinuity between “Radical Islam” and “the West,” does not stand up to critical scrutiny. The film is a critique of the same tendencies that it is seeking to promote. It is based on the same logic that it condemns and rejects. As such, the film falls apart under its own weight.
On the other hand, the film is very convincing if we were to watch it while suspending our critical faculties. Unfortunately, a large number of Americans have watched “Obsession” in precisely this way.